The Role of Eczema in Food Allergies

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As promised in my last column, I’m here to talk about the role eczema plays in food allergies. One of the big risk factors contributing to babies’ risk for developing a food allergy is dry, broken, sensitive skin (often diagnosed as eczema or atopic dermatitis). Research shows that babies with eczema can be over 600% more likely to develop a food allergy. In fact, it’s the number one risk factor for developing food allergies – representing an even bigger risk than having a family history of allergies.

I’ll explain why allergists and scientists believe this is true. In an ideal world, your baby would first get introduced to food through their tummies which typically allows them to accept and tolerate food safely. However, if a baby hasn’t eaten a food, and is exposed to the food another way, things can go awry. The reason: when foods get introduced through the skin, our bodies are trained to react to that food as a foreign object or food allergen. Research shows that when babies are exposed to food first through the skin, they are at greater risk for developing a sensitivity to that food.

Exposure through the skin can happen any number of ways: food dust and particles in the environment in which they live, parents and siblings touching food and then touching baby, or even a baby touching food and then itching/touching their own skin. This can also happen when invisible, ever-present food particles in the environment (like peanut dust) hit broken, eczema skin and enter the body.

The goal is to make sure that we’re aware of this and combat it wisely. This can feel scary, but there are several things parents can do to help reduce food allergy risk, especially if their child has eczema.

Keep your baby’s skin healthy and maintain that protective barrier

  • Look for dry, cracked skin. Apply moisturizing ointments containing emollients like petroleum jelly (many on the market and they don’t need to be marketed for a baby!) every single day as many times as needed to resolve the dryness and contain the healthy skin. Pediatricians call these “barrier creams” because they literally make a barrier between your baby’s dry skin and the world.
  • Choose scoopable creams and ointments over lotions (that you have to scoop from a tub). They have the same ingredients as lotions, but without the extra water.
  • Avoid emollients or creams that contain lanolin and natural food ingredients like almond oil or coconut oil, or cocoa butter as these could cause improper exposure to allergens and possible sensitization.
  • Avoid using moisturizing butters and use only fragrance-free products. Fragrances, while pleasant smelling, do not improve your baby’s skin barrier.
  • Create a baby skincare routine with your pediatrician if you have concerns!

Bathe your baby in warm water (not hot)

  • Use only a small amount (dime-sized) of baby soap when bathing baby, as soap can be drying for the skin.
  • When drying your baby, pat the skin as opposed to wiping the sky dry (as this can irritate delicate tissues).
  • Once the baby is dry, immediately seal the skin with an emollient ointment or petroleum jelly. This step will provide that critical protective layer of her delicate skin needs.

Things to remember

  • Be careful not to over-use baby wipes, as they may contain astringent chemicals. Wiping too hard can create cracks or fissures in the skin, so use wipes gently.
  • A smart practice can be to always wash your hands after touching food, and before touching your baby – especially if you’ve handled nuts, shellfish, or other potential food allergens.

I hope these actionable steps will help you implement a skincare routine to help protect your baby’s skin and help reduce their food allergy risk.

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Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson is a pediatrician, mom to two boys, and the Chief Medical Officer at SpoonfulOne. SpoonfulOne is a line of nutritional products designed to help stop a food allergy before it starts.*

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